Encore Michigan

‘Casa Valentina’ is a triumph of the heart at JET

Review June 05, 2018 David Kiley

WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich.–There is a sadness that runs through the veins of cross-dressing men. No matter how many laughs they might spark, or how outrageous some may present themselves, there is a resolute sadness.

Playwright Harvey Fierstein, who arguably writes on LGBTQ themes better than anyone, beautifully captures that sadness without taking audiences down a dark rabbit hole in Casa Valentina, now playing at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre here.

Director Harold Jurkiewicz splendidly cast this production about a cross-dresser who is married, and provides an inn in the Catskills region of New York State as a private getaway for a sorority of cross-dressing men.

The plot runs on two tracks. On one, we are focused on Miranda who has come to the inn for the first time. A nervous newbie, Miranda is torn between her own desire to let go and being too far out. Meanwhile, George’s in is in financial straits and he is hoping to tap Charlotte’s deep pockets for help. Charlotte has arrived with some ideas that makes the whole group uneasy. She wants to go public with the existence of the sorority as a way of legitimizing the transvestite community.

Ron Williams plays innkeeper George/Valentina with en edge. He is the organizer, and the one whose wife, Rita (Jean Lyle Lepard) is a loyal supporter of him, and the whole group. David Gram plays Jonathon/Miranda, the newcomer to the sorority who is green and apprehensive. Joe Bailey as Bessie is especially fun and poignant at the same time. He is big, would never pass for female, a war hero, and by his own admission is “ridiculous.” Greg Trzaskoma as Isadore/Charlotte manages to make us feel for his Charlotte even though she is unpleasant and destructive. She is the sorority’s organizer. As feminine as a Teamster, Trzaskoma is impeccably dressed and with every clutch of the pearls, she reminds us of a grandmother or maiden aunt whose been to church. Vince Kelley as Michael/Gloria knows he has an advantage in the group. She’s pretty and can pass, and that is the aim, and dream, of any crossdresser. Kelly wields that aspect of Gloria with just the right touch. Charles VanHoose as Theodore/Terry is world weary, older than the others but for Amy. Vanhoose plays Terry with a sweet, seasoned vulnerability that makes us all want to protect her from harm. Finally, Arthur Beer as the Judge/aka Amy makes a journey in the story from the sage of the group to the one who is ultimately most vulnerable.

Fierstein does an extraordinary job of capturing and walking the line between transvestites and cross-dressing gay men. Not all crossdressers are gay. And Charlotte doesn’t much care for gay men, nor the assumption that most people have that all crossdressers are homosexuals. Terry, meanwhile is having none of it. The gay community has always been there for her. And Gloria, who enjoys the attentions of men both straight and gay isn’t keen on her identity being made public either. What is the point of being pretty enough to pass, after all, if your picture is going to be in the paper with a caption that tells the world you are a man?

Ms. Lepard as the long suffering but compliant wife of George makes us feel both her love and her hurt in her posture and face. For all the pain we feel through the wigs, latex and make-up of the men, hers is just as palpable, as she has literally signed up to be with a man who is always with another woman.

The play, directed lovingly by Harold Jurkiewicz, doesn’t work without great attention to wigs and costume, and May Copenhagen has done a wonderful job of finding the right look for each actor. Elspeth Wlliams, too, as set designer has made the JET space work well as the all-purpose great room, kitchen of the inn, with a flanking bedroom area strewn with racks and racks of clothes.

This is the last production by the JET in their space at the JCC campus. The company certainly is leaving the building on a high note. Casa Valentina is a triumph of heart and humanity.

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Week of 1/27/2020

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